Durum wheat erosion

If there’s a dominant meta-narrative in agricultural biodiversity circles it is that modern breeding programmes relentlessly decrease the genetic diversity of crops, increasing yields and quality but also, as new varieties displace landraces and older varieties in farmers’ fields, depleting the very resource on which they are dependent for continued success. But actually there’s not really that much in the way of hard figures on this process. So a recent paper on what breeding has done to diversity in Italian durum wheat is very much to be welcomed.

The researchers used molecular and biochemical markers to compare genetic diversity among five different groups of durum varieties, ranging from landraces from before 1915, to pure lines derived from landraces in the 30s, to genotypes selected from crosses between local material and CIMMYT lines in the 70s. In general, there was indeed a narrowing of the genetic diversity within these groups over time. In fact, the degree of narrowing was probably underestimated, because only a relatively few of the pre-1915 landraces were still available for analysis. Conserving what is left is all the more important.

Alternative livelihoods

Do wander over to the latest edition of New Agriculturist, which, among other things, has a great feature giving examples of farmers adopting new crops and other ways of making a living as alternatives to illicit, environmentally damaging or otherwise inappropriate ones.

Rice in Italy

40869585_bdcd1db3d8_b.jpg No, not Condy Rice seeing the sights: rice the crop, and its future in Italy. It may surprise some people that rice is grown in Italy, but it has a long history of cultivation in the Po Valley, and an important place in the local cuisine, as anyone who has eaten risotto will testify. Unfortunately, the ongoing drought in the region is causing severe problems for thousands of rice farmers (among others) in the Val Padana. Some people are saying that’s the shape of things to come, with climate change and all. But here’s an interesting juxtaposition of news: it’s been announced that the Slow Food Foundation for Diversity, based in Tuscany, is to start marketing in Europe a traditional, organically grown, Filipino rice known as “unoy.” Isn’t globalization wonderful?

Photo from ciordia9 on Flickr provided under a Creative Commons license.

Making grains relevant

The low-carb craze of a few years back has spoiled the nutritional reputation of cereal grains, and it is up to the industry to get people eating them again. So said Francesco Pantò of the pasta giant Barilla yesterday at the first European congress of the American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI), in Montpellier. He suggested five ways to do that:

  1. develop new durum wheat varieties and special products that can differentiate them, as for grapes and wine
  2. market grains as mainstream and everyday products
  3. use innovative technology to incorporate new grains into familiar products
  4. aim for convenience, and promote the goodness of cereals and fiber
  5. add extra components to cereal products in order to make them into a more complete meal

The first of these will of course be particularly welcome by those of us interested in agricultural biodiversity, and I wonder whether pseudocereals like buckwheat and quinoa might also find a place under the third point.